Olympic champion shares struggle to be 'beautiful, thin and perfect'

April 4, 2012 at 12:30 PM ET

From the outside Amanda Beard’s life looked picture perfect: multiple Olympic medals, including two golds, and a successful career as a model. But on the inside, Beard was miserable. No matter how beautiful she looked to everyone else, Beard would gaze into the mirror and see someone who was fat, ugly -- and a failure.

By the time she hit college she was plagued by bulimia and depression. She took up cutting her arms with a razor to calm her frayed nerves. No one knew what was happening because she seemed so successful both in the water and out  --  and because she couldn’t share her feelings and fears.

"I went too deep": Olympian relates battle with cutting

“I felt like an idiot saying I was struggling so much inside because I was an Olympic athlete,” Beard told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday. “I was having a great career. I had my own house. There were all these great things going on in my life, but on the inside, I was hating everything about me.”

It took years of therapy and the love of a husband Beard calls her “white knight,” to bring the Olympic swimmer back to a healthy place. And now she’s sharing all her struggles in a memoir, “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry.”

The pool was Beard’s only refuge. “I had difficulty showing any sort of emotion outside of the pool,” she told TODAY. “As soon as I jumped into the water and put my goggles on, I felt like I could let everything go. I could cry my eyes out. I could have those emotional moments. It was my way of meditating and kind of dealing with [everything].”

Beard hopes that her book will help other women and girls feel better about themselves no matter how pressured they feel to look thinner and more beautiful.

“I want them to understand that you don’t have to live up to expectations other people are putting on you,” she told “And you shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed about how you feel. If things are bothering you, it’s OK to speak about things and to get help so you won’t get depressed or start cutting or become bulimic. You want to learn the right way to cope with things.”

Beard won her first gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics when she was just 14 years old. It was a lot for the young teen to absorb. What was even harder was coming back to her normal life once the Olympics were over.

“I think the pressure really started then,” Beard told “Like all the other high school girls I wanted to be perceived as beautiful and thin and perfect. And that was magnified by the media. I wanted to live up to what the media was saying.”

Making matters worse were the media reports leading up to Beard’s second Olympics in Sydney in 2000. “A lot of them talked about how I’d put on weight,” Beard told They said I was washed up. And I took it to heart.”

No matter how bad Beard felt about herself, she was still able to swim her best. “For the most part I separated the swimming and my personal life,” she said. “I could have the most crazy personal life and still swim well. I think that’s one of the reasons why no one thought anything was going on or wrong with me.”

And a lot was going wrong. She was often depressed and agitated. Her relationships with men were tearing her apart. She remembers when she first started cutting after a fight with a boyfriend.

“It kind of just came on by accident in the middle of an argument,” she told “I started digging my nail into my hand and I realized after the fight that that I had dug my nail in so hard that I had drawn blood. My initial reaction was not shock and horror, but a calming relief. And that is how I started cutting myself.”

Years later, Beard realizes the cutting and the bulimia were her ways of coping with the pressure and her low self-esteem. “I didn’t know how to deal with the things I was going through –- emotionally or anything,” she said. “I found ways to deal with things but they were not very healthy.”

It wasn’t until she finally started sharing her inner torment with the boyfriend who eventually became her husband that things began to turn around.

“He’s my best friend,” Beard told Curry. “He’s the person I could totally lean on and expose everything about myself. And he still stood by me. And that impressed me. And I knew this person loved me no matter what.”

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